The rapid growth of the mobile sector has had an unexpected dividend by bringing down the costs and improving the quality of motion sensors, screens, and processors it has helped usher in a new era of virtual reality technology.
Systems previously available only to largest manufacturers or to the military can now be put together with consumer-grade technology at a fraction of the price, and companies are already taking advantage of the opportunities.
When it comes to virtual reality, one of the biggest bangs for the buck is in virtual prototypes. Virtual models of buildings, oil tankers, factory floors, store shelves or cars can now be uploaded into a virtual environment and examined by safety inspectors, designers, engineers, customers and other stakeholders.
The Ford Motor Company, for example, has long been using virtual reality when it comes to prototypes and simulations, but the new wave of virtual reality technology is dramatically expanding its reach.
Ford's Immersive Virtual Environment lab, one of several areas in which Ford uses virtual reality, for example, has recently added the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to its virtual reality platforms.
It's used in combination with a shell of a car where the seat, steering wheel, and other parts can be repositioned to match those of a prototype car.
"If you look at it, you'd think it was a very stripped-down vehicle," says Elizabeth Baron, who heads up the lab. But when engineers sit down in the driver's seat and put on virtual reality headsets, they're virtually transported into the interior of the prototype.
"You have a gas pedal, brakes, steering wheel, a door, and when you're touching stuff, it's real," Baron says. "But when you're looking around, you're seeing the virtual data. That's where the Oculus is specially useful."
The Oculus Rift is the head-mounted virtual reality display that ushered in the current age of virtual reality with a $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign in 2012, followed by a jaw-dropping $2 billion buyout by Facebook earlier this year.
The Oculus Rift hasn't officially hit the market yet, but developer kits are available from the company for $350 each and more than 100,000 have already been sold. The device combines a high-resolution screen, motion sensors, and a set of lenses. The motion sensors track where the user is looking and the lenses stretch out the screen so it covers most of the user's field of view. The result is a very convincing illusion that the wearer has been transported into a virtual world.
"I'm extremely excited about the developments in the headspace scene and the work Oculus has done to bring low cost, wide-field of view to the market," Baron says. "I'm just over the moon about it. The good thing for Ford is, with our approach for using different display technologies, we're already ready to take advantage of the developments that come out of the virtual headset space."
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